Saturday, July 24, 2010

Critical thinking: different perspectives

When we were preparing the grading rubric to assess critical thinking (which is more complicated than you might think), Marianne Staempfli found this very useful resource: The Critical Thinking Community. While the website itself is quaintly old-fashioned, it has a lot of useful information. For instance, a definition:
Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.
Based on that and other partly overlapping definitions, they also provide a critical thinking grid. This grid provides descriptions for several objectives related to purpose, problem, information, concepts, assumptions, interpretations, implications, and perspectives. When Marianne and I converted this grid into a more logical structure, the most "contentious" issue was whether to include a category related to point of view or perspective into the grading grid. In the end, we decided that this indeed was something we would evaluate in our teaching, and kept it in the final version of our critical thinking grid. I could give you my rambling reasons, or you could just watch this short video of a presentation by Derek Sivers from my favourite source of examples:  TED .



Different perspectives are an important component of critical thinking, because by explicitly acknowledging them, you
  • increase the amount of information you have on a topic, and thus also potential solutions
  • reduce your inherent subjectivity when studying a topic
  • increase the clarity of your study because you address other points of view explicitly in your explanations

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A metacommuntiy or a self-organized system?

It is always interesting to read how scientists read, understand, and interpret articles in very different way. You can encounter this most often for your own results when you present at a conference or seminar, and you get questions that throw you in a hoop, and track the articles that refer to one of your publications (admit it, you do it too): often the first response is "how could they interpret my text/data/interpretation in that context?". The 3 most obvious causes for this confusion in understanding are either related to the reader, the writer, or implicit differences between the reader and writer. 
  • the reader often lacks the time to understand something (e.g., when you are presenting something in 12 minutes)
  • the writer often lacks clarity in his/her explanation (e.g. when you present something or in referencing an article out of context)
  • or implicit differences in background, expertise, and even personality between readers and writer


While we are all seasoned writers that provide clear, explicit, well-crafted texts to our audience (or so we hope at least, right?), we often assume it is either problem 1: readers/reviewers/audience need to read it more carefully. We are less often exposed to the third type of cause, implicit differences between scientists, or the inherent subjectivity to science, if you will.

After reading the primer by O.J. Schmitz to an very interesting article by Pringle et al., both in PLoS Biology, I was again made aware of the importance of subjectivity in reading articles. The function of the primer is to provide a bigger context to an article such that it becomes more accessible to a bigger audience.  In his primer, Schmitz argues that there are two views on spatial dynamics in empirical systems: an intuitive and well-studied meta-system (or meta-community) view, and a self-organized system view that received less attention because it is a more abstract construct.

While you could argue at nauseam which is the most abstract theory, and whether self-emergent systems are uniquely characterized by positive interactions within a patch and negative feedback between patches, I interpreted the original article quite differently from Schmitz. I agree that the establishment of termite mounts is potentially an example of a self-organized system, but this is not the focus of the article. The focus of the article is what consequences these termite mounts have on the ecosystem. And at this point, the more natural theoretical framework is a metacommunity framework. Once the termite mounts are established, they become similar to lakes in a landscape, with very distinct environmental conditions within the mounts versus the savannah matrix. These differences in environmental conditions, together with dispersal dynamics, result in specific arthropod, plant, and arboreal predator communities. And this is exactly the metacommunity, or meta-ecosystem, approach.

So based on my interpretation, this article is not so much about self-organized systems as it provides a nice example of species sorting dynamics in a metacommunity expressed at multiple trophic levels. But am I maybe biased because I think that ecology is actually metacommunity ecology?

Monday, July 19, 2010

A preview

A preview of things to come in the subarctic.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The scientific method: from intuition to data and back

This is an article in the Globe and Mail that struck a cord with me, "Ten years that shook, rattled, rolled and helped repair the world" by Doug Saunders. If you do not have the time to read the full article, you can click on this shortened version with most of the salient points summarized in a concept map structure (make sure to click on it to see the bigger version so that you can actually read the text ;-):


This article provides a very nice example of the 10th Cottenie Commandment: Thou Shalt Listen to thy Intuition, but Follow the Data. Intuition is a very powerful (human?) tool. We all know this (all my better ideas arrive to me magically on my bike ride home), and research actually shows this (see the articles references by;Ap Dijksterhuis, e.g, his 2006 Science article). We seem to be hardwired to find solutions to problems, even (and sometimes especially) without thinking about them. However, we should always check whether our intuition is correct, with new data, in whatever form it comes: observations, models, experiments, etc. The scientific method is nothing else than a formalization of this process: the hypothesis and prediction are a formal representation of your intuition on what causes a certain problem or question, and all the tests are formal ways to obtain new data. I think this explains partly the power of the scientific method as a way of explaining phenomena: it is actually a very natural way to approach a problem.

The article by Doug Saunders implicitly uses this method, by starting the article and each subsection with the intuitive notion of the common consensus on how the world would progress, and it follows this by the actual data 10 years later. The very short version of his analysis: if you look at socio-economical benchmarks, the world improved substantially in the last 10 years. Surprisingly, I also think that the main point that D. Saunders failed to cover, and it is a huge one, is the deteriorating environment in the last 10 years. I think that all the indicators would show a decline in the environment (anybody has any references for this statement?).

So the main question for the next 10 years is whether these socio-political improvements are going to be sustainable. Very hard to predict. What is your intuition?

Monday, July 12, 2010

Concept maps: THE tool for learners?

Learning (be it as a scientist, a teacher, a student, or any combination of the above, this will be the topic of another blog) is a difficult process, as any scientist, teacher, or student will tell you. However, sometimes you get struck by lightening, by an experience that makes you wonder, "How did I ever function without this?". 3 years ago, I was introduced to concept mapping by Steve Crawford, but I am not exactly sure how we got on this subject. Probably one of those serendipitous moments in life, instigated by being on the same floor and bumping into each other (location, location, location). Steve even has a whole room set up to use concept mapping for his research (yes, I am only a little bit jealous).

I used it for the first, haphazardly I have to admit, in Fall 2008 for Biology of Polluted Waters. I did give students to choice between either creating concepts using pen and paper, or computer software, and they only had to use it for the semester-long assignment. This was a mixed success, because I forgot rule number 1 when teaching: start small, and practice. I added more information on concept mapping in Winter 2009 for Community Ecology, but only really committed in the Summer and Fall of 2009, with providing guidelines on how to use and construct concept maps, specific exercises, grading rubrics (bad ones, updated them since), moving focus away from writing to concept maps, including them in all part of the learning experience.

It is such an important tool that I also force all my grad students (and I try this with all my collaborators as well), to construct a concept map before sending me any written text. If they do send me a written text first, I often have to quickly create a concept map before I can read the text again, and I send them the concept map first before rewriting the text. That is why concept mapping earns a separate commandment in The Cottenie Commandments.

So I do think they are an important tool for learners. There are probably a lot of reasons for this, but I want to point out 2.

  • Firstly, it is a very intuitive way of presenting and working with information. The example I use in one of my classes is this diagram by Richard Scarry (I got this idea from the book "Advanced Presentations by Design, from Andrew Abela", highly recommended):



  • Second, it provides a very efficient way of taking information and working with it to come up with the intuitive presentation. One of the best examples to illustrate this transformation of complexity to a structured, logical, intuitive representation of information is by somebody who makes his living doing this (and I can use another TED talk again). Why do I like this example so much: almost everybody has a credit card, but hardly anybody reads the agreement (at least I do not) because of the complexity of the language and the document. But reading the one pager that has all the necessary information, waw. 


As you can see, these 2 examples are not your regular examples of concept maps. Why did I take these two examples? Because they also illustrate that concept maps and concept mapping should never be the goal or the objective, which is ultimately about information presentation. I am convinced, though, that they were an important tool, either explicitly or implicitly, in creating these two presentations. Do I have proof of this? No, but we are working on a study that will test the potential relationship between concept mapping and critical thinking.